Tales, myths and legend abound, but the first official documentation of Islay was by St Columba. These days it is the centre of the whisky-crafting world - in the sixth Century, however, it was a power base for the Lordship of the Isles. Much of this was thanks to the fact that it was not just grain that the seas brought with them, but also the clement Gulf Stream. Its comparative warmth continues to make Islay picturesque and ideal for farming, fishing and, of course, distilling fine whisky. In fact, for the Mariner who has been at sea for a time, you can see why Islay and Bunnahabhain are described ‘as a welcome return to civilisation.’
A Light in the Distance
The thought of a glass of fine malt that evening is the light at the end of the tunnel for us all some days. And so it is with the lights of Bunnahabhain distillery. Nestled against the hill these lights have brought hope and heartened many a seafarer on their journeys.
Built in 1881 at the same time as the distillery, the pier was the place to be to hear the tales that seafarers brought when they delivered our provisions. Costing circa £3,500, this handsome investment was used by the distillery for unloading barley and yeast here and loading finished casks onto steamers that could, at one time, dock on both sides of the pier. To experience those old tales today, simply take a sip of your favourite Bunnahabhain.
The Wyre Majestic
If ever there was a cautionary tale of enjoying any spirit responsibly, the Wreck, as it is affectionately called, is one.
In October 1974, finding no berth in Oban, the Wyre Majestic and her sister ship, the Defence, attempted to steam to Fleetwood, north of Blackpool. Story has it that at around eight in the evening the trawler strayed off course and hit the rocks at Rubha a’ Mhail. For eleven long days the skipper stayed aboard attempting to free the vessel on a big tide with the help of the Defence.
All to no avail, as the Majestic sits stricken on the rocks at Bunnahabhain to this day. The skipper was given the blame for the grounding as he was below at an ‘inappropriate’ time, although the Mate at the helm admitted he may have been at the wheel in a ‘stupor’.
The Winding Road
The only problem with working in such a picturesque distillery is that there is only one road. Winding past Ardnahoe Loch, with the Sound of Islay dropping away on one side and the hills rising on the other, it is hard to think of a more pleasant and rewarding journey anywhere.
Islay has a richness of landscape that means that the seas are not our only source of water-based tales. On the clear, calm water of Loch Finlaggan sit the islands of Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle. These two house the ruins of what was once the power centre of the Islands and the West of Scotland. Ruling almost independently from Royal control were the Macdonald clan. Descended from Somerled, who had claimed the Islands in the 12th Century, they ran their estate from here - Finlaggan being home to their council chambers - until 1493, when the last ‘Lord of the Isles’ was exiled. Today, ‘Lord of the Isles’ is one of the titles taken by the Prince of Wales.
Here Be Geep
It might sound like an Ileach tall tale told by men at sea, but Islay is home to a geep (or shoat depending on your preference). Half goat and half sheep, it made the news when it was discovered at birth by an island farmer. It is thought that the animal had been sired by one of the local wild goats. Stranger tales have been told.
The Whisky Making Process
Tales and records have it that our malt has started life the same way since 1881, with good malted barley, pure Margadale spring water, a little yeast and a sprinkling of adventure.